Falls can happen during any aspect of daily life. However, of those slip-and-fall accidents that occur outside the home, most occur at businesses and restaurants. Not only are businesses and restaurants often high-traffic locations, but these places also present many potential hazards for guests.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), falls consistently rank as the leading cause of accidental injury. While it is true that falls disproportionately impact older Americans, the reality is that every age group is at risk of experiencing a slip-and-fall accident.
The most recent statistics compiled by the CDC highlight the serious threat that falls pose. In 2017, there were 36,338 fall-related deaths, making up over 15 percent of all injury-related deaths. In addition, there were 10,551,000 fall-related hospitalizations, accounting for over 24 percent of all hospital visits based on accident injuries.
For example, a few of the most common causes of slip-and-fall accidents include:
- Cracked pavement
- Defective chairs or tables
- Defective stairs
- Electrical wires
- Missing or loose handrails
- Overly slick flooring
- Poor lighting
- Spilled liquids or other products
- Unmarked hazards
- Unsecured furniture or equipment
- Uneven surfaces
- Weather conditions
- Wet floors
As a general matter, a business’s potential responsibility in a premises liability lawsuit is primarily a function of the relationship between the guest and the business owner. In the vast majority of slip-and-fall cases occurring at a business or restaurant, the visitor will be classified as a business invitee.
Business invitees are those who are present on another’s property for the financial benefit of the property owner. Clearly, customers fit within this definition, as do vendors, suppliers, contractors, drivers, and others. While arguably employees would also be considered invitees, the application of state workers’ compensation laws prevents injured workers from pursuing premises liability cases against an employer in most situations.
The Duty Businesses Owe Their Customers
Business owners owe a high duty of care to business invitees. While the specifics of this duty will depend on the jurisdiction where the business is located, a business generally is required to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition. This includes a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect invitees from conditions that can result in injury. Thus, not only do business owners need to remedy known hazards that pose a threat to guests’ safety, but they also have an obligation to conduct a reasonable inspection of the property and to warn guests of any discovered hazards.
However, courts have routinely ruled that businesses are not “insurers of an invitee’s safety,” and that invitees are not protected against all hazards. Most notably, these include hazards that are “open and obvious.”
Open and obvious hazards are those that the guest should take note of and avoid through their own reasonable diligence. In this way, guests are responsible for acting to protect themselves. However, even in situations involving an open and obvious hazard, a business owner may still be liable for a guest’s injuries if the hazard is deemed an unreasonable danger.
For example, suppose a restaurant-goer slips and falls after stepping in a puddle of water directly inside the restaurant’s entranceway. In that case, it will be essential to know whether it was raining outside at the time. If so, a court may determine that the restaurant-goer should have known to expect that the area immediately inside the restaurant would be slippery. However, if the puddle was excessive in size, or if the restaurant did not have any process to address and remedy hazards, the restaurant may still be liable for the customer’s injuries.
Notably, a business employee does not necessarily need to be made aware of a hazard in order for the business to be liable for an injury. Premises liability cases often proceed on a theory of constructive knowledge, or the concept that a business “should have known” about a hazard, had the business exercised reasonable diligence. Often, a company will attempt to rely on its established safety procedures to show that its actions were reasonable in a situation.
For example, assume a grocery store customer falls after stepping in a puddle of unknown liquid. Further, assume that the grocery store was not made aware of the spill. The store may claim that it cannot be liable because it acted reasonably in implementing a strict procedure in which an employee walks the aisles every 15 minutes. In this situation, the injured customer may seek the store’s cleaning log to ensure that store employees actually followed the safety protocol.
Slip-and-fall accidents occurring at businesses and restaurants frequently pose unique questions of law and contested facts. While courts are left to address the legal issues presented by these cases, the jury’s job is to resolve all factual disputes and to ultimately determine liability. In many premises liability cases, the distinction between a legal issue and factual dispute is not entirely clear. Regardless, the assistance of an experienced slip -and-fall attorney is critical to these claims